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date: 11 December 2023

Theatre Workshopfree

(act. 1945–1973)

Theatre Workshopfree

(act. 1945–1973)
  • Robert Leach

Theatre Workshop (act. 1945–1973), was a performing theatre group founded in 1945 'to show to the widest public and particularly to that section of the public which has been starved theatrically, plays of artistic significance' (Theatre Workshop publicity leaflet, 1945). It aimed to take advantage of technical advances in the areas of lighting and sound, and to include music and dance in its productions, thereby creating a flexible dramatic form capable of confronting 'contemporary problems'. In general terms it may be said that this aim lasted until Theatre Workshop petered out in the early 1970s, though its interpretation and application altered over the years.

The group consisted initially of five founder members: Joan Littlewood and Ewan MacColl, acknowledged as the leaders of the group, Gerry Raffles (1923/4–1975), Rosalie Williams, and Howard Goorney (1921–2007). In July 1945 they established a headquarters in Kendal, Westmoreland, where they were quickly joined by others: Harold Bowen, David Scase (1919–2003), Pearl Turner, Gerald Wilkinson, Ruth Brandes, Nick Whitfield, Bill Davidson, and Kristin Lind. The driving force that united the group was politics. Theatre Workshop intended to create a drama which was to be characterized as revolutionary or Marxist or communist, though they never tied themselves to a particular party line. Nevertheless, the group's shared understanding of the phrase 'the public which has been starved theatrically' was that it referred unequivocally to the industrial working class.

Several of its earliest members had worked together in Manchester in the late 1930s in Theatre Union, organized and run by MacColl (then called Jimmy Miller) and Littlewood. This in turn had grown out of the Workers' Theatre Movement of the early 1930s. Littlewood and MacColl had met in 1934, and married in November 1935 (they divorced in 1948); together they had founded first Theatre of Action then Theatre Union as a means of protesting against the growth of fascism and Nazism and its appeasement by the British government, and to promulgate generally pro-communist politics by means of modernist theatre. But, however passionate its commitment, Theatre Union was always an amateur theatre: Theatre Workshop, by contrast, was to be a full-time, professional company.

Theatre Workshop was planned as an ensemble along the lines of progressive European theatre companies, such as the Moscow Art Theatre. Like that company, all its members were to receive the same salary and there were to be no star performers. There were, initially at least, weekly plenary meetings to discuss both theatre matters and politics, and members of the company lived, ate, and relaxed together as a more or less self-contained community.

Theatre Workshop productions were to tour, where possible, to places that had no permanent theatre, and consequently were mounted in village halls and similar venues. These buildings often proved to be in disrepair, and the places the company visited frequently had little tradition of serious contemporary drama. Audiences, therefore, were very often extremely sparse. The first production mounted in autumn 1945, with Littlewood as the company's stage director, was a double bill of Ewan MacColl's ballad opera, Johnny Noble, and his adaptation of material from Molière and Italian commedia dell' arte, The Flying Doctor. In the following years the company's permanent repertory was expanded to include Lorca's The Love of Don Perlimplin and Belissa in the Garden, Chekhov's The Proposal, and a number of plays by MacColl, including his adaptation of Aristophanes' Lysistrata, retitled Operation Olive Branch, and two original plays, Uranium 235 and The Other Animals.

MacColl's plays failed to receive the attention they deserved, partly because of Theatre Workshop's 'invisibility' to influential critics, and partly because he made little effort to have them published. His work was influenced by German expressionism (especially the plays of Ernst Toller), experimental American drama of the first half of the twentieth century, and by a certain popular strand of English playwrighting represented by Ben Jonson and John Gay. At their best MacColl's plays presented an intellectually challenging form of montaged, documentary, and politically motivated drama that led directly to the better-known, but perhaps no superior, later work of Theatre Workshop, especially Oh What a Lovely War (1963).

The group placed strong emphasis on learning and training, working together over the years to develop a shared company 'language' that survived through its many vicissitudes and changes of personnel and repertoire. MacColl and Littlewood insisted that training should continue even on the most arduous tours. Members of the company studied theatre history and theory in detail. They worked on voice, movement, and dance on a daily basis, and Littlewood asked the exiled German movement specialist Rudolf Laban to work with them. His wartime personal assistant, Jean Newlove, who became Ewan MacColl's second wife in 1949, joined the company as a permanent member in 1948, acting, choreographing, and above all training the actors to good effect. In the opinion of Sigurd Leeder, a member of Laban's company, 'these actors move as some of the best dancers I've ever seen' (Goorney, 160).

Theatre Workshop was certainly the first British company consistently to apply Konstantin Stanislavsky's revolutionary system of acting. Littlewood and MacColl had discovered Stanislavsky's work in the late 1930s, and had previously experimented with it among amateur actors. Theatre Workshop used Stanislavsky relentlessly in training, rehearsal, and performance. It was, however, always modified by the equal application of Laban's techniques, and Littlewood over a period of years managed to combine these two practices into her own unique system, which resembled Stanislavsky's ‘active analysis’ modified by ‘Labanized’ movement. Moreover, her emphasis on playing ‘in the present’, that is, never allowing a movement or an intonation of the voice to become ‘fixed’, meant her work was individual and in some senses transcended that of her ‘masters’.

The insistence on touring, and the gradual fading of anything like a revolutionary consciousness in post-war Britain, gradually presented Theatre Workshop with a crisis of both practice and theory. Low audience figures meant continuing financial hardship at a time when the company was unable to secure any form of subsidy. More than once they disbanded for a period of months, only to reassemble with new hope and a new tour planned, either in Britain or in continental Europe, where they were widely admired. However, the continual transporting of sound and lighting equipment, scenery, and trunkloads of costumes, not to mention a company of fifteen or more actors, was exhausting.

In late 1952 the crisis reached a head. Gerry Raffles recommended that the company should take a lease on the Theatre Royal, Stratford, in East London, a rundown venue, to be sure, but one in the heart of a working-class community. Inevitably this would mean the end of touring. The government's promise of local-authority funding for the arts was a lure, because the company simply could not earn enough to pay its grossly overworked members a living wage. And some of them understandably desired recognition of their work from fellow professionals or even critics who knew nothing of them. But MacColl and some other members felt that seven years' work would be thrown away if they settled in London, that the raison d'être of the company would be lost, and that members would start seeking to engage with the London critics instead of with the working class. Harold Hobson, critic of the Sunday Times, countered that Theatre Workshop should face audiences who were not necessarily in sympathy with their political stance, rather than avoid such confrontations. In the end, those who wanted a permanent base won the argument, and MacColl drifted away. Theatre Workshop's residence at Stratford began with a production of Twelfth Night in February 1953.

Much had to change. Gerry Raffles, while continuing to act, write, and fulfil a series of backstage roles, took on the business management of the company, while Joan Littlewood took sole responsibility for productions. These two were soon joined by John Bury, the company's stage and lighting designer. They created a sort of management triumvirate that oversaw the theatre and the company for its most acclaimed decade. Inevitably in these new conditions, Theatre Workshop not only modified its policy away from overtly revolutionary politics, but also changed its programming, effectively becoming a repertory theatre. Because audiences remained extremely small it was constrained to mount a new production every two or three weeks, usually of Elizabethan or twentieth-century classic dramas—Shakespeare, John Marston's The Dutch Courtesan, the anonymous Arden of Faversham, and a number of Ben Jonson's plays, alongside Shaw, O'Neill, O'Casey, Gogol, Molière, Chekhov, and others.

It was now that Joan Littlewood came into her own, directing a string of challenging productions that effectively exposed and reviled the hypocrisy, philistinism, and materialism of British society in the early 1950s. Mixing comedy, satire, realism, and fantasy, the company's repertoire became a critique of contemporary society in a way that was highly original, and perhaps unique in British theatre history. Furthermore, it was achieved virtually without subsidy. Internationally the company received considerable acclaim at the prestigious Théâtre des Nations festivals in Paris, first in 1955 with Arden of Faversham and Jonson's Volpone, followed in 1956 by MacColl's adaptation of Jaroslav Hašek's The Good Soldier Schweik, and Brendan Behan's The Hostage three years later.

During this period many of the actors in the company did their best work. A partial list of Theatre Workshop actors who should be mentioned, some of whom joined later in the 1950s, or even in the 1960s, includes Clive Barker (1931–2005), John Blanshard, Peter Bridgmont, Patience Collier (1910–1987), Francis Cuka (b. 1936), Wallas Eaton (1917–1995), Barbara Ferris (b. 1942), Nigel Hawthorne, Yootha Joyce, Miriam Karlin (b. 1925), Roy Kinnear (1934–1988), Sylvester McCoy (b. 1943), Murray Melvin (b. 1932), Brian Murphy (b. 1933), Toni Palmer (b. 1932), Maxwell Shaw (1929–1985), Victor Spinetti (1933–2012), and Barbara Windsor (b. 1937). Among those whose performances were acknowledged as especially brilliant were Howard Goorney and Avis Bunnage (1923–1990), two of the most versatile actors of the period, and George Cooper, whose Schweik, in The Good Soldier Schweik, one critic characterized as having 'an angelic imbecility that hides the shrewdest of common sense' (Daily Mail, 10 Nov 1954), while another asserted that 'there has not been a much funnier performance in London this year' (Evening Standard, 10 Nov 1954). Perhaps the finest Theatre Workshop actor of all was Harry H. Corbett (1925–1982), later a popular television star, who created a series of subtle and searing performances over a number of years. Probably his single most significant achievement was as Shakespeare's Richard II, whom he presented as a cringing, arrogant, cruel, and self-indulgent king, in a production which was performed at the same time as one at the Old Vic Company, the traditional home of more conventional productions of Shakespeare. Whereas the Old Vic version was poetic, staid and, some people opined, dead, Corbett in Littlewood's production shattered both theatrical tradition and scholarly complacency.

From 1956 Theatre Workshop produced a series of new plays, often discreetly co-written by Joan Littlewood. The first of these was Brendan Behan's The Quare Fellow, a passionate indictment of capital punishment, which transferred to London's West End, as did later productions of Shelagh Delaney's A Taste of Honey (1958), Behan's The Hostage (also 1958), Frank Norman's Fings ain't wot they used t'be (1959), Wolf Mankowitz's Make Me an Offer (1959), and Stephen Lewis's Sparrers Can't Sing (1961). These plays share a vitality still evident to the reader. They tend to concern groups of people, communities rather than individuals; they all employ an unexpected variety of styles in a single play; and they have an underlying carnivalesque attitude that celebrates the earthiness of life and satirizes those in authority. They suggest what Joan Littlewood meant when she declared in 1958 that she sought to create 'a people's theatre' (The Times, 1 July 1958).

The process of transferring Theatre Workshop productions to the West End had two effects, besides at last gaining for the company a reputation both national and international. First, it replenished the company's chronically empty coffers; second, it saw many of the company move from Stratford to the West End, so that Littlewood was left without actors whom she had trained in her methods. By 1961, she was, according to John Bury, 'burned out' (Goorney, 123). She retired from the company, which effectively went into abeyance in her absence.

In 1963, however, Littlewood returned to create Oh What a Lovely War, perhaps Theatre Workshop's most brilliant and successful production. The play was a montage of the First World War, a pierrot show punctuated with a series of period songs that interrupted scenes of brutality, absurdity, tragedy, and realism. Using newspanels which flashed out ‘facts’, and huge blown-up contemporary photographs as backdrops, Littlewood created a show that was moving, serious, disturbing, and funny. Thoughtful spectators came away not just enlightened, but also starkly aware of the current threat of nuclear war. The play was the final and greatest exemplar of Littlewood's collaborative, improvisational method, and her restless, ruthless integrity. It was a major influence on British drama in the following decades, transferred to the West End and Broadway, was filmed in 1969, and has been revived in countless productions from school plays to major professional productions into the twenty-first century.

Oh What a Lovely War was the final brilliant flourish of Theatre Workshop, though the company limped on for another ten years with Joan Littlewood nominally in charge. But her last production there, in 1973, So you Want to be in Pictures, was effectively the end of the company she had founded with Ewan MacColl nearly thirty years earlier. Following the death of Gerry Raffles in April 1975 Littlewood settled in France, where she lived for the rest of her life. The square upon which the theatre stands is now named Gerry Raffles Square.


  • H. Goorney, The Theatre Workshop story (1981)
  • H. Goorney and E. MacColl, eds., Agit-prop to Theatre Workshop (1986)
  • R. Leach, Theatre Workshop: Joan Littlewood and the making of modern British theatre (2006)
  • J. Littlewood, Joan's book (1994)
  • E. MacColl, Journeyman (1990)
  • C. Marowitz, T. Milne, and O. Hale, eds., The encore reader (1965)
  • F. Norman, Why fings went west (1975)
  • D. Paget, True stories? Documentary drama on radio, screen and stage (1990)
  • R. Samuel, E. MacColl, and S. Cosgrove, eds., Theatres of the left, 1880–1935 (1985)


  • Ransom HRC, Joan Littlewood and the Theatre Workshop collection
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Harry Ransom Humanities Research Center, University of Texas